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A personal look at the Hauz Khas complex in Delhi

Stumbling upon Delhi’s Hauz Khas complex, the AR finds a marriage of medieval architecture and modern consumerism

My wife is a London-based accessories designer who visits India once or twice a year. Each time she spends up to three weeks in Mumbai or Delhi, where her designs are manufactured in one of the new high-end factories that have helped to drive the growth of northern India since the 1980s.

Occasionally I fly out to meet her. ‘Programme drift’ is a fairly predictable aspect of doing business in India, so I often find myself left to my own devices. It was on one of these occasions during my first visit to Delhi that I stumbled across a set of buildings at Hauz Khas - meaning the great (khas) water reservoir or tank (hauz) - built by Alauddin Khilji at the end of the 13th century and repaired and augmented with various tombs and a madrasa (theological school), commissioned by ruler Firoz Shah Tughlaq in the 14th century.

I didn’t know I was going to see these buildings at the time and when I did, I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. I was attempting to prove that I am just as capable a traveller as my wife, and not just a disorientated European tourist with digestive issues. Earlier that day, I had been hijacked (in the nicest possible way) by a charming taxi driver called Mr Singh who had taken me to various emporia where I had disappointed both him and his friends by not buying anything. Disappointment was rapidly turning to defeatism, when with a last throw of the dice he dropped me off in Hauz Khas, an area just south of Delhi’s ring road.

Having given up on the nearby shops and café (I had been unwell the previous day and food was not among my priorities), I wandered off through a small area of forest. It was warm, so most human activity had come to a halt, the only noises coming from birds. I followed a path through a massive rubble wall surmounted by decorative Kangura battlements and saw the first of the Tughlaq tombs and smaller chatris (stone parasols) which occupy the enclosed ground to the east of an L-plan madrasa. The tombs are open domed structures in square, octagonal and hexagonal plan form with chunky square or hexagonal stone columns.

The school appears to consist of two slightly ruinous wings of a single-storey quartzite rubble building (originally rendered in white stucco), pierced by stone colonnades through which a small greenish body of water to the north-east could be seen.

The hinge of the two wings is formed by Firoz Shah’s tomb, a square building in plan with battered walls and an early surviving jali (pierced stone) screen above the entrance door. The tomb is topped by a slightly pointed dome set on plasterwork squinches and corbelled beams that translate the square plan into an octagonal drum then a 16-side drum and finally the dome.

Walking through the colonnades, I realised that the building drops away to form two storeys on the north and east sides facing the site of the original open tank, which was about the size of a football pitch. The lower level appears to be formed of residential areas for scholars or perhaps ablution spaces. I saw small groups of trendy student types sitting in the hypostyle sections of the building, talking quietly and enjoying the cool shade and views out over the tank, now occupied by parkland.

That evening I joined my wife and one of her colleagues, describing to them the quiet, almost hallucinogenic aspect of the Hauz Khas complex. My wife’s colleague smiled and said she was glad I had seen the place in that light. ‘Normally it is a zoo, with the world and his wife climbing all over and stuffing their faces with snacks.’ She then told me a story about some of the residents of the site. I can’t confirm if all the facts are correct, but it went something like this.

Some time after Alauddin had completed his great tank, a group of a group of Jats (small farmers) set up a village, taking advantage of the water. Over the next 100 years the tank gradually silted up, which was no problem for the farmers who grew crops over it. Almost a century later (1351) saw the accession of Firoz Shah, a man who by all accounts valued building, agriculture and religious scholarship over the warlike arts of his preceding sultanate relatives. Firoz Shah had the tank dredged and repaired so that fresh water could be provided to the area again, and constructed a madrasa with a tomb for his remains. This work was duly carried out, but not before the villagers had been evicted from the site.

With the fall of the sultanate came the eventual abandonment of the religious precincts. The villagers moved back, converting the madrasa and tombs into family dwellings. This was still a fairly mixed little community of Muslims and Hindus, farmers, dhobi wallahs (washermen), sweepers and small shopkeepers, and this is how the area stayed, more or less, as various new rulers and invaders visited, stayed or left Delhi.

The next time the site changed was in the early teens of the 20th century, when a group of scholarly men from the Archaeological Survey of India (the Ministry of Culture’s guardian of archaeology and monuments) decided that the buildings at Hauz Khas were of such importance that they should be preserved (although it could be argued that the villagers had not done a bad job over the preceeding four-and-a-half centuries). The villagers were moved on, with enough compensation to buy land to start a new village adjacent to their old homes.

The tombs and religious buildings were excavated, catalogued and preserved and the villagers left in peace until independence and the subsequent partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. During appalling intercommunal violence triggered by partition, millions of people moved between what was to be northern India and Pakistan. Any Muslims with money left the village, leaving their poor co-religionists and the Hindu Jats. The government bought up surrounding land over the next 10 to 20 years in order to provide homes for refugees from the north. This purchase was later to include the villagers’ farmland, covering the tank and religious precinct, which was set out as a public park.

The position of Hauz Khas between Delhi’s inner and outer ring roads did not profoundly alter its backwater character, partly because connections between the two roads were not that great. This saved the area from the fast and furious land development that has transformed many of Delhi’s villages into dense areas of isotropic urbanism over the last 20 years.

The villagers were by now no longer farmers, however they managed to maintain something approximating a village existence, with old-fashioned properties and cattle kept in domestic courtyards. With the increased interest in traditional clothing and non-industrial techniques, various designers moved into the area in the 1980s. The village offered an authentic environment for their explorations of Indian identity. Film stars and middle-class ladies wafted about in fabulous ‘ethnic’ clothing while the villagers, who would not have dreamed of spending such money on clothes, looked on.

Modern Delhi has a complex relationship with its architectural past and, like most rapidly urbanising societies, a complex relationship with its agrarian past. Many of Delhi’s (Hindu) population have an equivocal attitude to the monuments erected by their former Islamic rulers

Delhi street maps show the area around Hauz Khas as enclosed to the south by the enormous Indian Institute of Technology campus and to the north and east by middle-class neighbourhoods packed with teaching hospitals, art institutes, schools and universities. To the west are the park grounds of the tank containing the old madrasa. My wife’s colleague continued with her theory about the villagers and their talent for keeping forgotten things safe until Delhi needs them again. First the tank, then the madrasa and tombs and, in our own time, the idea of village life within an intensifying and transforming urban environment.

We talked about identity, place, Indian actor Pavan K Varma and British author Iain Sinclair. As we left the restaurant my wife’s colleague said something that threw me: she was conscious that her story about the villagers was romanticised. That I believed it was forgivable because I am an outsider. She, however, could not, although she found it a pleasant fiction. The villagers were still at Hauz Khas because they own some of the land on which they live, and because they provide an interestingly anachronistic backdrop to a shopping area and public resort. If that land were to be required for something else in future, she supposed, they would be evicted immediately.

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